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A hostage to my OS?

July 19, 2009, 12:16 pm

A comment in my last post raised a point about using Mac OS X or Windows, as opposed to using Linux, that gets raised a lot in these kinds of discussions but which simply isn’t true. The point was:
Go the Windows or Mac route and you become a hostage to monopoly pricing. A happy hostage maybe but a hostage nonetheless.
I’ve heard this before. If you commit to using proprietary systems like a Windows or OS X machine, you are locked in — you can only use Windows software and Windows-compatible hardware, and if Micro$oft decides to jack up the price of its OS to, say, $500 per license, then you can only say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Although the computer market is not a monopoly, your initial choice of what system to use can effectively make it into one, for your own personal purposes. You’re a “hostage” to the whims of the company that makes your hardware and software and there’s no breaking out without a considerable cost.
I’ve thought about this argument a lot in the past, in the context of the question: If for some reason I had to migrate away from using Macs, would I be able to do so and keep all my stuff? For example, suppose that next academic year, our IT department decides that everybody has to start using Tablet PC’s, or netbooks running Android, or something. What would become of all the documents I made in iWork? And so on. After my post, I decided to sit down with my Macbook Pro, look in the Applications folder, and see just how much of a “hostage” I really am to applications or data formats that work only on the Mac.
The first thing to realize is that a majority of the apps that I use on a daily basis do not lock me in to a Mac whatsoever. These are apps that either store no data, or create data that are already in a universally-interoperable format. These would include: text editors, Twitter clients, IM clients, web browsers, \(\LaTeX\) editors (although I use this text editor for my \(\LaTeX\) editing and not a pure \(\LaTeX\) IDE), Preview (Apple’s image/PDF/etc. manipulation program), or the two computer algebra systems (Maple and MATLAB) I have installed. There are more apps that I use that are similarly un-locked. I would estimate that 70-80% of the work I do uses applications like these. I might not be able to port those apps themselves to a Windows or Linux environment, but I would certainly be able to do the things that I do with those apps in other environments.
I will admit that there are some applications that I used regularly which lock me in to some degree:
OmniGraphSketcher and OmniGraffle, used to create hand-drawn mathematical graphs and diagrams (respectively), create files in a format that cannot be ported from one OS to another since both of these are Mac-only. I can export the finished products to PDF or PNG, but not the source.
Some documents I’ve created in iWork — Apple’s office suite — are so format-rich that although iWork allows documents to be exported to their Microsoft Office equivalents (and then to OpenOffice or Google Docs if needed), the formatting would probably break in the process. Again, if I were migrating from a Mac, I’d have to export all these to PDF and just realize I’d not be able easily to edit the source in another OS.
iTunes (which I do not use on the laptop but use extensively on our iMac at home) is, of course, available for Windows, but if I had to leave iTunes behind altogether, probably 30% of the songs I have in my iTunes library did not come from my CD collection and were purchased before Apple decided to remove DRM from its songs. Those songs would be locked in.
Any source files for projects that I created in iMovie or iDVD would be un-portable.
However, I’d say that less than 10% of the files I have on my computer or archived on an external drive would fall under this category. It wouldn’t be catastrophic if I had to get away from a Mac. A much larger portion of my data are created or handled by apps which, although they do things in a Mac-specific way, allow for exporting of data to a neutral format:
OmniFocus, the software that I use for GTD (and which is therefore the lifeblood of my workday), is Mac-only but lets me export my entire GTD database to plain text, HTML, or CSV. I’d hate to stop using OmniFocus, but only because I really like how it works, not because I’d have to pay a lot of money or lose a lot of data to do it.
My wife and I have a lot of gigabytes invested in iPhoto, but if we had to, we could simply export the photos in it to their raw JPG forms to a DVD and start over with something else.
OmniOutliner is another Omni product I use a lot for crafting lecture notes, presentation or article outlines, and so on. It’s Mac-only, but again I can export the outlines to RTF, PDF, or a number of other formats.
So it’s simply not true that I’m a “hostage” to Apple products. If Apple started charging prices for its products that I simply couldn’t afford, or if Linux ever got to the point where it works just as well or better than Windows or OS X and I switched as a result, or even if I ever just got tired of using Apple products, I feel confident that I could take my data and set up shop on a new OS without any major hiccups.
But I should also point out that users have to be mindful of being locked in and work towards “future-proofing” their systems. A couple of years ago, I was making all my calculus materials in Pages with lots and lots of formatting. Then I got to thinking about these issues of being locked in and started doing all my materials in \(\LaTeX\) instead. (\(\LaTeX\) will almost certainly never go away.) And most of my quick notes and drafts of documents are done in a text editor using plain text files rather than Pages or another highly Mac-specific program. I’ve been intentional about not getting locked in, and so I’m not. Other users who are less intentional might find themselves with much less freedom if they had to switch.
But let’s put to rest the notion that using proprietary software locks you in to using only certain kinds of hardware and software. That is really just a canard.

A comment in my last post raised a point about using Mac OS X or Windows, as opposed to using Linux, that gets raised a lot in these kinds of discussions but which simply isn’t true. The point was:

Go the Windows or Mac route and you become a hostage to monopoly pricing. A happy hostage maybe but a hostage nonetheless.

I’ve heard this before. If you commit to using proprietary systems like a Windows or OS X machine, you are locked in — you can only use Windows software and Windows-compatible hardware, and if Micro$oft decides to jack up the price of its OS to, say, $500 per license, then you can only say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Although the computer market is not a monopoly, your initial choice of what system to use can effectively make it into one, for your own personal purposes. You’re a “hostage” to the whims of the company that makes your hardware and software and there’s no breaking out without a considerable cost.

I’ve thought about this argument a lot in the past, in the context of the question: If for some reason I migrated away from using Macs, would I be able to do so and keep all my stuff? After my post, I decided to sit down with my Macbook Pro, look in the Applications folder, and see just how much of a “hostage” I really am to applications or data formats that work only on the Mac.

The first thing to realize is that a majority of the apps that I use on a daily basis do not lock me in to a Mac whatsoever. These are apps that either store no data, or create data that are already in a universally-interoperable format. These would include text editors, Twitter clients, IM clients, web browsers, \(\LaTeX\) editors (although I use this text editor for my \(\LaTeX\) editing and not a pure \(\LaTeX\) IDE), Preview (Apple’s image/PDF/etc. manipulation program), or the two computer algebra systems (Maple and MATLAB) I have installed. There are more apps that I use that are similarly un-locked. I would estimate that 70-80% of the work I do uses applications like these. I might not be able to port those apps themselves to a Windows or Linux environment, but I would certainly be able to do the things that I do with those apps in other environments, without having to re-create the data I already have.

I will admit that there are some applications that I used regularly which lock me in to some degree:

  • OmniGraphSketcher and OmniGraffle, used to create hand-drawn mathematical graphs and diagrams (respectively), create files in a format that cannot be ported from one OS to another since both of these are Mac-only. I can export the finished products to PDF or PNG, but not the source.
  • Some documents I’ve created in iWork — Apple’s office suite — are so format-rich that although iWork allows documents to be exported to their Microsoft Office equivalents (and then to OpenOffice or Google Docs if needed), the formatting would probably break in the process. Again, if I were migrating from a Mac, I’d have to export all these to PDF and just realize I’d not be able easily to edit the source in another OS.
  • iTunes (which I do not use on the laptop but use extensively on our iMac at home) is, of course, available for Windows, but if I had to leave iTunes behind altogether, probably 30% of the songs I have in my iTunes library did not come from my CD collection and were purchased before Apple decided to remove DRM from its songs. Those songs would be locked in.
  • Any source files for projects that I created in iMovie or iDVD would be un-portable.

However, I’d say that fewer than 10% of the files I have on my computer or archived on an external drive would fall under this category. It wouldn’t be catastrophic if I had to get away from a Mac. A much larger portion of my data are created or handled by apps which, although they do things in a Mac-specific way, allow for exporting of data to a neutral format:

  • OmniFocus, the software that I use for GTD (and which is therefore the lifeblood of my workday), is Mac-only but lets me export my entire GTD database to plain text, HTML, or CSV. I’d hate to stop using OmniFocus, but only because I really like how it works, not because I’d have to pay a lot of money or lose a lot of data to do it.
  • My wife and I have a lot of gigabytes invested in iPhoto, but if we had to, we could simply export the photos in it to their raw JPG forms to a DVD and start over with something else.
  • OmniOutliner is another Omni product I use a lot for crafting lecture notes, presentation or article outlines, and so on. It’s Mac-only, but again I can export the outlines to RTF, PDF, or a number of other formats.

So it’s simply not true that I’m a “hostage” to Apple products. If Apple started charging prices for its products that I simply couldn’t afford, or if Linux ever got to the point where it works just as well or better than Windows or OS X and I switched as a result, or even if I ever just got tired of using Apple products, I feel confident that I could take my data and set up shop on a new OS without any major hiccups.

I should also point out that users have to be mindful of being locked in and work towards “future-proofing” their systems. A couple of years ago, I was making all my calculus materials in Pages with lots and lots of formatting. Then I got to thinking about these issues of being locked in and started doing all my materials in \(\LaTeX\) instead. (\(\LaTeX\) will almost certainly never go away.) And most of my quick notes and drafts of documents are done in a text editor using plain text files rather than Pages or another highly Mac-specific program. If I didn’t like OmniFocus so much, I’d probably be using TaskPaper for my GTD needs, since TaskPaper is really just a user interface that works with plain text files. I’ve started buying more of my songs for the iPod from Amazon’s MP3 download service (which offers a very nice experience and prices that are often better than iTunes’). I’ve been intentional about not getting locked in, and so I’m pretty free to do as I wish with my data. Other users who are less intentional might find themselves with much less freedom if they had to switch.

But let’s put to rest the notion that using proprietary software locks you in to using only certain kinds of hardware and software. That is really just a canard.

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